Ford Nix: Detroit bluegrass pioneer

On Sunday, October 14, before dawn, musician Ford Nix passed away in his sleep. A popular, yet humble man, Nix played an important role in Detroit’s 20th century country music scene.

Wilma Ann, Ford Nix, Curly Dan
Ford Nix (center) at a picking session with Curly Dan and Wilma Ann in Hazel Park, Michigan, late 1950s. (Courtesy Wilma Ann Holcomb)

On Sunday, October 14, before dawn, Ford Nix passed away in his sleep. A popular and personable man, Nix played a prominent role in Detroit’s 20th century country music scene.

Born in Blairsville, Georgia, in 1932, Nix was a young teen-ager when he discovered the music of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. His humorous nature was pretty well developed, so he picked up a banjo and combined picking and comedy in his act. After working with Ramblin’ Tommy Scott’s medicine shows in the region, at age 17 he moved to Detroit, where he hired into a Chrysler factory. In Michigan he made the rounds of barn dances and nightclubs, including Casey Clark’s shows. At the time, Nix’s bluegrass style presented a unique sound among the western swing and honky tonk played by most groups in town.

Nix entered the air force in 1953, spending most of his deployment in Japan. He played music with air force buddies, including Harold Jenkins, later known as Conway Twitty. Four years later, Nix picked up where he left off in Detroit, returning to Chrysler and jamming with Ray Taylor and others. By then, bluegrass in Detroit was attracting crowds in nightclubs, with the likes of Jimmy Martin, Curly Dan, Buster Turner, Jimmy Lee Williams, and Marvin Cobb leading groups and cutting records.

Ford Nix and Bob Mason
Ford Nix and WEXL Royal Oak disk jockey Bob Clark, 1963. (Courtesy Ford Nix)

In 1959 Nix made his first record for Jim Henson’s Clix label in Troy, Michigan. In 1960 he joined the cast of Billy Martin’s “Michigan Jamboree,” a country music variety show on Jackson television. While keeping his job at Chrysler, Nix toured with stars from Nashville through the 1960s. He performed on Ernest Tubb’s “Midnight Jamboree” at WSM radio Nashville. He recorded with Wendy Smith at Fortune Records, and with the Supremes at Motown, where he cut some unreleased music (check out Robb Klein’s comment at the previous link). He also made his own albums, including one with Frank Buchanan, one of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, along with Roy McGinnis and the Sunnysiders.

Nix traveled quite a bit, and became a well-known and respected entertainer in both country and bluegrass circles. He retired from Chrysler in 1981, and concentrated on several business ventures besides playing music. I tell a lengthier tale in the Detroit country music book, which includes plenty of quotations from the inimitable Ford Nix.

 

8 Comments. Leave new

  • I believe this trio used to practice across the street from our home on Hazelwood in Hazel Park. The Holcombs lived there and their son was Delmas Holcomb. As I recall, they called themselves the Danville Mountain Trio. As a kid I never knew what they were all about except that they practiced in their living room and we could hear it out on the street. That would have been about 1959 or 60. Nice folks. As a coincidence, about five years later I began a radio career at the nearby WEXL studios shown in the photo.

    Reply
    • That’s right, John. Curly Dan’s group was the Danville Mountain Trio. Thanks for sharing your memories. I would LOVE to learn more about your experiences at WEXL radio! Feel free to send a direct message via the contact page on this site.

      Reply
  • Butch Gross
    May 11, 2013 2:25 pm

    I was looking for where abouts of Curley Dan and Wilma Ann because we use to go to their home quite often. I took guitar lessons from him. When I found this web site, I saw the picture with Bob Mason, but we knew him as Bob Clark. My mother (Martine Gross) was the president of his fan club. I met Ford Nix a couple of times, though I don’t remember exactly where. I was only 10 at the time. The only other DJ I remember was “Big” Bill Samples, and that was in the day when the DJ’s even dressed the part when on location in the trailer. I still have some of the radio copies of the old 45’s we got from them. We had some great times at the shows at Cobo Hall and around. Just curious, but do you remember Jerry Limaneck from Windsor?
    I’m in Arkansas with my sister, and was just remembering some of the names of people from the past. I am in MD and have a group called the Antietam Gospel Trio,and singing for the Lord is FANTASTIC.
    May God Bless

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your memories, Butch. You’re correct about the DJ’s name – he was known as Bob Clark. An entire chapter is devoted to Curly Dan and Wilma Ann in my forthcoming book “Detroit Country Music: Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies,” due in September 2013. Best wishes to you!

      Reply
  • I remember Ford and that double neck banjo . As a young man growing up in the Hazel Park and Royal Oak area I was a club musician and had the pleasure of playing with Ford several times . What great memories .

    Reply
  • steve muruga booker
    August 12, 2018 6:35 pm

    when i was 16 or 17 i did a gig with Ford it was among my first gigs on drums. I loved him what an influence…steve booker aka muruga booker

    Reply

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